Public Domain Jam Next Weekend #PDJam

Copyright law is kind of messed up. Actual copyright law is actually a combination of codified law and legal rulings to clarify or provide exceptions for such laws. For a primer on copyright law for indie game developers, see What an Indie Needs to Know About Copyright.

The Copyright Clause of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress is empowered “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

That is, copyright is a tool to promote science and art, and it does so by providing a temporary monopoly for creators.

It is NOT meant to provide monopolies for creators as an end in itself. It’s just the means to an end.

Once the temporary monopoly’s time period expires, the work in question enters the public domain.

The public domain is the set of all creative works that are available to the public. There are no licenses required, no fees to pay, and no patents to worry about. That is, someone was able to benefit immediately from creating it, and in exchange, for the rest of posterity, everyone can benefit from it and build upon it. That’s the way it should be.

The nature of creation isn’t completely independent invention. Instead, a new creation tends to rely on existing creations. For example, the invention of the electric motor relied upon the knowledge produced earlier on the nature of electric currents and their interactions with magnets. Another example is the popular BBC television series “Sherlock” which is based upon writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle from the late 1800s.

Unfortunately, copyright law keeps extended the “temporary” monopoly indefinitely and there doesn’t seem to be an indication that it will stop, which means the public domain has been frozen in place for decades. So while, for example, Disney was able to build an empire off of freely available public domain works, such as the story of Snow White and the seven dwarves, no one has been allowed to build off of Disney’s works in turn. Basically, some people got some advantages from free culture and aren’t returning the favor, and what’s more, they are actively lobbying to ensure they won’t have to.

Lawrence Lessig is the author of Free Culture, which explains more about how copyright law used to work and how it no longer does. I highly recommend reading that book if you want to understand the vital importance of a healthy and constantly replenished public domain.

But what are we doing today? The public domain that exists, as stuck as it is, still has plenty of great works to build upon. And yet, when it comes to games, are we seeing a lot of unique work?

We have the ubiquitous space marines (including Relic’s Space Marine), zombies, and military shooters. We have the Tolkien-esque fantasy games, the interstellar wars with hostile aliens, and the dudebro hero’s journey.

And yet, there is so much more out there to build games upon.

Enter The Public Domain Jam.

Gritfish explains:

I announced the Public Domain Jam a month ago as a reaction to the over-use of some themes in the indie game scene, but since then, I’ve been flooded with nothing but enthusiasm from people over their love of works in the public domain.

The tagline for the jam is “Because there’s more out there than zombies.”

To encourage the publication of games that immediately contribute to free culture, “Nothing to Hide” creator Nicky Hide has donated a $1,000 prize to be awarded the top rated game published under a Creative Commons Zero license.

There are a number of other incentives, including free art and sound assets, free licenses for cross-platform game engines, and more.

I think it sounds like a fantastic idea. The only concern goes back to my assertion at the top of this post: copyright law is messed up.

Years ago, I wrote about Zorro, the public domain, and derivative works. The Curse of Capistrano is the first story to feature Zorro, and it is in the public domain. The Mark of Zorro was the 1920 film about the story. It’s also in the public domain.

Except, copyright law is different from one country to another, which means that while you can make your game based on this story in the United States, you might not be able to distribute your game in some countries where the story is not yet in the public domain.

Moreover, even though the copyright for some stories about Zorro are in the public domain, the trademarks for Zorro do not expire.

Which is why Zorro Productions is able to exist. If you want to make a Zorro-based film, TV show, comic, game, or book, you probably want to license the rights from them to avoid legal trouble. The claim is that the original story does not describe Zorro the way people expect to see him today. Characters such as his horse Tornado are introduced later in works not in the public domain.

There have been a number of lawsuits, including one last year involving a musical based on the public domain works that Zorro Productions claims is a violation of their trademarks and copyrights. The creator of the musical sued them, and it will be interesting to see if this case plays out in its entirety instead of being settled out of court like they usually do.

So, again, the Public Domain Jam sounds great, but copyright law is complex, and everyone should be careful because otherwise public domain works might have certain organizations asserting they own some piece of it. And in the case of international distribution, they might be right in some cases depending on the laws of certain countries.

But remember, the entire point of the Public Domain Jam is to get us away from building “Yet Another Game About XYZ”. The rich variety of source material available in the public domain should provide plenty of innovation and without as much legal risk.

Ship on iOS or Android First?

iOS vs Android

When I talk about making apps for Android, the question I invariably get, occasionally with shock or disdain, is “Why not make apps for the iPhone/iPad/my precious device?”

To be fair, I tend to bias against what’s popular.

But not in an obnoxious way. I not that guy who insists on not having a television and makes sure to tell everyone each chance he gets. And, I’m not a counter-culture activist consumer. I run GNU/Linux, but I do so on a Dell laptop. While I don’t shop at Walmart, I do shop at Target. I make games for GNU/Linux, but I also port them to Windows because it is easy to do.

I just get suspicious when there is a rush to own a piece of something, such as the iPad, or the original iPhone before it, or the iPod before. Camping out to be the first to own a piece of consumer electronics that will be patched and/or obsolete within months is not for me. The same goes for new game consoles or games. I can wait.

I am very clearly not an early adopter, nor am I all that interested in owning an Apple product. I was fairly happy with my Linux-based computing at home, and the idea of buying something I couldn’t tweak or configure bothered me. Of course, the idea that it “just worked” and didn’t need configuration appeals to a lot more people, so Apple has been very successful.

Eventually, I got a a smartphone. It was an Android device, an HTC Evo Shift II. It had a slide-out keyboard, which meant I could text and type easily without needing to learn some gesture-based input. It was bulkier, but I never had to worry about buying an external case for it. I liked it, although eventually I started running out of memory for the thing, and that’s when I learned about how fragmented the Android market was. Also, I ran into the problems with the U.S. market in that my phone is tied to the carrier and not just a device that I can plug the carrier’s SIM card into. That means updates to this phone’s OS were never going to happen unless I jumped through a bunch of hoops.

I now have a Samsung Galaxy S4, but I kept the Shift because when it is connected to my wireless, it’s still a relevant computing device. Plus, I could use it to test any apps I make for Android.

So now I have two Android devices. No, wait, I have a third: the Google Nexus 7 tablet that my wife got me for Christmas last year, my first tablet if you don’t count the EXOPC Slate I got after GDC 2011. That’s three different Android-based devices that I can use myself as well as use as test devices for apps I create.

Android today has a much larger marketshare (so much for biasing against what is popular), but it is common knowledge that iOS apps average more revenue for developers than Android apps. The thinking is that people who are willing to spend the Apple premium are also willing to pay for apps, and the numbers getting reported tend to indicate it is true.

Apparently if someone switches from iOS to Android, it is news. For major app releases, it is very common for the iOS version to be released before the Android version, if a port comes at all. I wonder how Microsoft feels being the Linux of mobile in this regard. If the app gets updated, it is possible that the Android version will lag behind, or have an unnatural UI, or will be otherwise inferior. Now the trend seems to be changing so that Android-first is becoming more common, but not everyone is happy.

The Fallacy of Android First documents one developer’s experience with trying to go Android first. Emu is a messaging app, and apparently Dave Feldman found that Android’s fragmentation was still an issue and the development tools were not as robust or stable as Apple’s. The larger potential audience doesn’t always translate into more users of your app, especially once you take into account backwards compatibility.

Feldman says:

Running a startup is all about learning. This has been a huge lesson for us, one I wish we’d learned faster…but perhaps our experience will help others to make a more informed decision. Android’s flexibility, and its greater strength in certain markets, still make it a far better platform for certain types of product. But it’s a difficult road, and best to travel with your eyes open.

He links to Steve Cheney’s post Why Android First is a Myth from last October which similarly describes a more complex development experience for startups developing on Android, especially those who rely on venture capital.

All that said, what’s it look like for games?

iOS is still dominant in terms of revenue earnings for developers, and if you are selling apps instead of doing a free-to-play model, Apple has demonstrated that they have paying customers. Plus, there’s very little variation and customization, which means you don’t have to do nearly as much work to ensure your game will work on an iOS-based device, and when you do, you have a significant chunk of the market.

Google announced cross-platform Google Play Game Services so that developers can create apps for both Android and iOS more easily. In fact, Google is using services to provide new capabilities without a need to fragment the userbase more than necessary. So, it is getting better there. And with a F2P model, more potential users means you don’t have to worry about how stingy your players are.

But is it really that hard to release simultaneously? If you use a library like libSDL or an engine like Unity, you can have a single code-base that ports more or less seamlessly.

In any case, for my next game, I’m currently wondering if not having an iOS device and a way to develop for it is going to hurt me. I’m looking into my target market to find out if my convenience of using devices I already own to develop the app will coincidentally line up with their own needs, but more and more I’m thinking that I will need to invest in some Apple hardware if I am going to be relevant to my customers.

Do you release for iOS first, Android first, or simultaneously? What has your experience been?

Book Review: Designing Games by Tynan Sylvester

Note: this post was originally published in the March 2014 issue of ASPects, the official newsletter of the Association of Software Professionals.

Designing Games by Tynan Sylvester

Many people have tried to create a comprehensive definition of games but have failed. Most definitions are either insufficient in that certain games are left out, or they are too broad and encompass too much that are not games. In “Designing Games”, Tynan Sylvester writes that games are “an artificial system for generating experiences.” Disney amusement park rides are clearly not games but would be considered such by this definition. It’s obvious he erred with the latter option.

Still, Sylvester’s definition is useful when approaching game design from the point of view of the player. When you tweak a space marine’s jumping ability, what emotion are you trying to provoke? When you insist on having simulated people visible in your simulated city, what is it that you want the player to think? How did the designers change the player experience in Super Mario World by ending levels with a giant gate instead of the flagpole from the original Super Mario Bros?

Much like the principle of Chekov’s Gun says that everything seen or mentioned in a film, play, or story should serve a purpose and everything else should be removed, game design demands that you make decisions in the same way. According to Sylvester, games are made to provoke emotion. As he puts it, “think of a game as a strange kind of machine – an engine of experience.”

The first part of the book is about the nature of games. The author identifies mechanics as the basic rules that define a game, then identifies the interaction of mechanics and play to generate events. A mechanic might be that a player can run. An event is what actually happens, that is, the actual running a player is doing. While most other entertainment media author events directly, events in games occur at the intersection of rules and play.

The key to being a good designer of games is to engineer mechanics that result in meaningful play. Events should be important to the player. He makes the claim that the importance of an event comes from the emotion it provokes. While emotions don’t have to be extreme, they matter. A key skill is identifying subtle emotions.

Sylvester argues that events have emotional relevance when they change the states of values that are important to people. In the game Minecraft, players are attacked at night by creatures, putting them in a state of danger. It is only in building a fortification that a player feels safety. In Lemonade Stand, selling lemonade means a shift from poverty to wealth. In World of Warcraft, joining a guild to fight a major enemy turns strangers into friends.

The greater the emotion, the more significant an event can be. Selling one extra cup of lemonade on a hot day might merely result in a few more cents in your pocket, but selling one extra cup when it means the difference between profit and loss is a huge victory. Some games give you bonuses for doing an event multiple times in a row. For instance, after Pac-Man eats a power pellet, the ghosts turn blue for period of time, and they are edible. Eating a ghost in Pac-Man gives you 200 points, but eating a second ghost gives you 400, a third 800, and a fourth 1600. The event is the same, but each subsequent event has more riding on it.

It’s the combinations of emotions along with the thoughts and decisions of a player that makes up the experience of play. The second part of the book is about how to create a game to generate the general experience you desire for players, the craft of game design. The chapter on elegance focuses on how to create emergent complexity from a few mechanics. Another chapter focuses on skill and how it creates barriers to entry to a game as well as dictate how deep a game is. Tic-Tac-Toe is a solved game for grown-ups while young children might find it a challenge. Chess, on the other hand, seems to have a skill ceiling that is beyond our abilities to master completely. In between we have games that are fascinating until players become bored with them.

The chapter on narrative focuses not on how to craft a good story but on the tools one may use to do so in this interactive medium. A fantastic concept is the idea of apophenia, which is our tendency to see patterns in complex data. I’ve heard of game designers amazed that players attribute malice and tenacity to an enemy that is in actuality programmed to act randomly. Apophenia means that emergent stories can come out of games so long as enough information is there to give players a reason to think. Out of the techniques the author mentions for generating apophenia, my favorite is labeling. Giving two identical monsters the names Poindexter and Grunt might result in a player thinking that one is acting much more intelligently than the other, even if it isn’t the case. There’s also the implied backstory regarding how those creatures were given those names. Labeling can also apply to attributes as well. It’s similar to writing a novel and describing a character as ravishingly gorgeous. Rather than actually write details about how someone is attractive that may or may not appeal to a reader, the reader’s imagination fills in the blanks, resulting in a richer and more entertaining story even though you actually provided less.

There are also chapters on decisions, balance, multiplayer design, motivation and fulfillment, and a game’s interface. I really appreciated the chapter on the market. “Every design decision is affected by the purpose the game was created to serve”, whether it is getting someone to buy a commercial game or walk away with deep thoughts after playing an art game. The entire chapter is about understanding the market you are creating a game for, and it is one of the biggest gaps in most books in game design. I’m pleased it was addressed quite well in this book, providing tools such as positioning and value curves, and explaining market segments, while also reminding the reader that models are imperfect.

For example, no one could predict that StarCraft would become a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. It was the result of a confluence of the popularity of Internet cafes, recent investments in broadband infrastructure, a recession that provided incentive for inexpensive entertainment, and TV channels dedicated to the boardgame Go that made broadcasting professional StarCraft matches a logical conclusion. Another example is The Sims, the greatest selling PC game of all time. It created its own market after struggling to get buy-in from the publisher. Existing models gave no indication that a video game about playing house would be so popular.

The third part of the book focuses on the process. Game design is geared towards the creation of a game, which is a major project. Planning such a project is much like planning a software project: sometimes we don’t know what we want until we see it working, or not working, in front of us. Playtesting is needed when tweaking mechanics or introducing and removing others entirely because it is only through play that a designer can understand the experiences being generated by the changes. Planning becomes difficult as a result, but planning can’t be ignored.

Iteration is the key, and Sylvester borrows ideas from Eric Ries’ “The Lean Startup”. We have uncertainty at every step in designing a game, so we conduct experiments to resolve the uncertainty. The steps are to plan, build, and test, and you do so to get back information about what works, what causes confusion, what problems might exist, and more. The book explains how to conduct playtesting, and it dedicates another chapter to ways to generate the designs to test in the first place.

I learned quite a bit from the chapter on dependencies, an understanding of which can help mitigate the risk that comes with creating a game. By identifying how various aspects of a game design are interrelated and dependent, we can create a graph called a dependency stack. The dependency stack informs us what aspects of a design to focus on implementing first. If goblin raids only make sense if there are castles to raid, you want to focus on the castle-building aspects of the design first. What’s more, a change in the implementation of castle-building would likely cascade to changing how goblin raids work, so a dependency stack also provides information about the risks associated with change. The biggest benefit it can provide is helping the designer identify the core game play, the minimum mechanics at the bottom of the stack that provide the meaning and experience desired.

There are some sections on management, teamwork, workplace politics, and handling incentives to work on a project. While these are all covered quite well in entire books on their own, Sylvester touches on them as a warning to aspiring game developers: recognize that game development is hard.

There’s a way to make it less difficult though. The last chapter focuses on the importance of the values that a game designer has. “I don’t think anyone can prescribe the best values for all designers. I do, however, think that every designer could benefit from thinking about what values they believe in. Because values keep us steady. They are immutable standards that stabilize us against the political and emotional turmoil of daily design work.”

Between this chapter and the one on understanding the market, Sylvester demonstrates his understanding that games don’t get designed in a vacuum. Too many game developers throw something together and put it out without any thought to why. The recent news about Flappy Bird’s creator taking down the highly profitable app because it brought him too much attention highlights the importance of knowing what you are getting yourself into when designing a game.

While I found some of the concepts in the book have been mentioned elsewhere, such as Jesse Schell’s “The Art of Game Design”, and I wish Sylvester would have touched on concepts such as the Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics (MDA) model, I would highly recommend “Designing Games” for its comprehensive treatment of game design. I know I have quite a few new tools I want to wield at my own projects.

Accessibility and Inclusion in Games: #AccessibilityJam Starts This Weekend

Access for skinny wheelchairs only

I just learned about Accessibility Jam, which is running from May 11th through June 1st.

The goal of this jam is to raise awareness, giving developers knowledge and experience of how to make mainstream video games accessible to gamers with disabilities, to provide good examples of what’s possible, and move accessibility towards being widely accepted good practice in the game design process.

The idea isn’t to make niche games that cater specifically to gamers with disabilities. The jam is meant to raise awareness and increase the accessibility of the kinds of games that are already being made.

I’ve written in the past on designing games to account for color-blindness. I recalled a beta test for a game in which one person complained about how hard it was to see the green vehicle on the green grass. This complaint confused me at first because the vehicle in question was blue. I eventually changed it to look significantly more interesting and give it a different color. Without that beta test, I would have inadvertently ignored a significant chunk of my audience.

Ok, so you can easily accommodate a color-blind player by using more than color to differentiate important aspects of your UI. You just need to be conscious about it and know about the tools of shape and size.

But what about players with other vision impairments, including those who have difficulties with reading? Or people who have hearing, cognitive, or motor impairments? Accessibility is a big topic, and you can’t possibly be expected to spend the time and effort here when you are trying to focus your attention on making the best game you can, right?

Well, the jam provides some awesome accessibility resources and tips, which features a number of useful links, such as the Includification Guide provided by the AbleGamers Foundation. This PDF is only a little less than 50 pages and offers practical checklists, advice, and examples, as well as numbers to indicate that there is a significant market you can reach with your efforts in accessibility.

Another link is Game Accessibility Guidelines, “a straightforward reference for inclusive game design” broken into basic, intermediate, and advanced topics. This site is a treasure-trove of information, and more importantly, it shows how easy it is to address accessibility. Basic considerations include using easy-to-read fonts and font sizes, especially as reinforcement of audio cues. Such a small effort means not just a more accessible game but a better game for everyone.

An example of an intermediate consideration is providing options in game speeds. Offering game speed configuration and the ability to prepare actions while the game is paused are some easy ways to assist those with motor and cognitive impairments. As a side-effect, it means accommodating people with different preferred play styles.

Once while demonstrating my casual real-time strategy game, Stop That Hero!, to someone, he requested that I add a game speed slider. While I’ve had requests for a way to increase speed when you just want to get your orcs across the map quickly to see what happens, this player wanted something more like a turn-based game.

Pausing the game but still allowing player interaction meant that he could take his time to make decisions about what minions to summon and where to summon them. I’m afraid I never got to that feature before I put the game on the back-burner, and while I initially didn’t like it as I thought it might ruin the feel of the game I was creating, I have since realized that allowing players to enjoy the game at their own pace allows for a much better experience for more players. That it means the game would be much more accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to enjoy the game is an exciting prospect.

So, are you planning on participating in Accessibility Jam? It sounds like a great opportunity to learn and practice ways to make your game more playable by a wider audience.

(Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/drdul/210641686 | CC-BY-SA-2.0)

Avoiding Player Elimination in Game Design

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher, author of Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish and creator of the strategy boardgame Britannia, has a YouTube channel on Game Design, currently with over 20 videos on topics such as tabletop game history, level design, and content creation. A number of these videos are meant to be part of a game design course Pulsipher teaches.

In Avoiding Player Elimination in Game Design, he talks about ways to keep people playing throughout a game instead of feeling that it is hopeless to continue if they are too far behind.

In the above video, he focuses heavily on war games, but he touches on a simple idea for keeping non-conflict games relevant throughout the play session: providing escalating values and rewards. You can see this effect at play in some Eurogames.

Mario Party games tend to incorporate this idea, too. Even if you’re losing, you might get bonus stars in the end to keep you competitive.

The rest of the video is a fascinating bite-size nugget of game design thoughts, and I wish there was more to the discussion.

What are you favorite game design videos on YouTube?

Game Design Pro Tip: Don’t Ban Specific Activities

Fishing ban!

In Ban the ban: essential game design advice (with examples), Nick Bentley talks about the cognitive dissonance of establishing rules and then creating special “but you can’t do X” rules to prevent problems.

Why do such rules exist? The most common reason is, during play-testing, the designer discovered players want to take an action that would hurt the experience – for example, a too-powerful action every player would take every turn if allowed. The most obvious fix is to ban it.

He then goes on to explain how doing the most obvious fix is a bad solution.

Banning otherwise-expected actions means the rules become harder to learn and the game play itself becomes awkward as you are constantly checking your planned actions against the rules.

Bentley’s post is a fascinating bit of insight into how a design problem can turn into a design success. By not banning actions, you have to allow for them. The entire point of banning a move is because it is unbalanced or otherwise ruins the game, so how do you allow it without the game suffering?

Interestingly enough, the answer can sometimes mean a much deeper and more compelling game.

Basically, take the action that you deem is too strong and assign a huge cost to it.

Bentley gives a couple of examples and a counter-example to see when it makes sense to include a ban, but the result is a choice that makes sense within the rules and can sometimes result in a more strategic game.

While Bentley is talking about boardgames, you can see how it would be applied to video games.

For example, if your game has inventory, you could limit the amount that could be carried. If a player with a full inventory comes across some new loot, the choice is to get rid of something to carry the new thing or not pick it up. Think Diablo or Minecraft.

NetHack, however, allows you to carry whatever you want, but it balances it with an encumbrance penalty. The penalties get more and more severe as you collect more things. You start off with penalties to speed and attack ability. If you carry too much, the penalties include not being able to walk up or down stairs, getting hungry faster. Carry even more, and you start taking damage for each move you take, and eventually you can get to the point where you can’t move at all.

Instead of arbitrarily deciding that a player can’t carry that much inventory, you turn it into a strategic choice. Do you want to struggle to carry all of the groceries from the car into your apartment so you can do it in one trip, or are you going to make multiple trips so it is easier?

You can see how this method of balance would apply in terms of limits on the number of units in a real-time strategy game. Some games add an upkeep cost which increases after you add so many units. Now I can choose to have too many units in my army temporarily if I’m willing to pay the cost, say for a large offensive push or to defend against the same.

“You can’t perform this quest. You don’t have a sufficient experience level.” No, by all means, try to perform the quest, but it is going to be incredibly punishing. The balance is already built in here!

Sometimes limits are technical in nature, such as the number of units you can have in your army at once. Still, you can see how allowing the player to decide if a decision is a poor one or a good one despite the cost means a deeper play experience than it would have been if you were limiting things arbitrarily.

(Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jo-h/6009234100 | CC-BY-2.0)

How to DWYSYWD

Angry

Extreme Leadership, Incorporated President Steve Farber recently wrote a challenge involving seven words.

He made a reference to his thinking on this topic at the Extreme Leadership Summit a few weeks ago, saying something to the effect that most people are very bad at keeping their word.

We say we’ll do something, deliver something, create something, and when the deadline comes, we say things like “I ran out of time” or “I forgot” or make some other excuse.

I believe that we’ve let ourselves get away with mindless lip flapping for far too long; therefore, let me suggest this: if you could, somehow, hold yourself ridiculously accountable to your own words, if you spoke with a contractual attitude, you could earn a tremendous competitive advantage over 99% of the population. You could earn the rare status of the person whose word truly is their bond. Imagine the cred you’d gain.

He talks about seven words that change everything. Those seven words? “Do What You Say You Will Do,” affectionately known as DWYSYWD.

It sounds simple, but there is a lot packed into such an obvious-sounding sentence. It involves quite a bit of groundwork, actually.

Learn to Say “No”

If you are going to hold yourself to what you promise, you can’t say yes to everything you are asked to do. When you make a commitment to be somewhere for one person, you have effectively said no to being anywhere else with anyone else, right?

It can be hard because many of us don’t want to say no to another person’s request. It feels rude. It can feel selfish.

But you also know that you can’t be in multiple places at the same time. You can’t multitask effectively, according to the science. You can’t squeeze in more hours in a day.

So you only have so much capacity. At some point, you have to say no whether you consciously decide to do so or not.

If you agreed to go shopping with your daughter, for instance, you aren’t going to be spending it on your own game development. You’ve said no to your own goals when you said yes to someone else’s.

Similarly, if you said you were going to meet with your friends at a bar, you have cut off all other options for how to spend your evening.

And depending on your priorities, it may be a fine decision to make.

Which brings us to how you know when to say yes or no to a request.

Figure Out Your Priorities

If your life is a boat, then your priorities act as your North Star. With priorities, you know which direction you will decide to go. If the currents and waves turn you around, you can quickly steer back on track.

Contrast it with a boat with no direction and no destination, and you have the experience of most people. Tossed and turned in the turbulence of life, they just know they don’t want to capsize. Otherwise, so long as they are floating, it doesn’t matter which direction they go.

As I wrote in 2005 in a post on responsibility:

“Go with the flow” is a nice saying, but it is a horrible motto for your life.

Knowing your priorities in life, you gain a lot of clarity. You have a much better chance of identifying opportunities as opposed to distractions.

So how do you know what your priorities are?

Identify Your Goals

Here’s a choice: go to the gym, or watch TV.

If one of your goals involves a healthy body, you know you will choose the first option no matter what you’re feeling at the time. If you have no such goals, then the whim of the moment dictates your actions. If you are tired or unmotivated or don’t have a habit of going to the gym, then you are probably more likely to sit on the couch. Without a clear health goal, there’s no reason to point you out the door!

In the boat analogy above, your goals are your destination. You can’t decide which direction makes sense unless you know where you are going. Similarly, you can’t prioritize unless you know how to measure two options against each other.

If you take on a project, does it get you to your goal or take you away from it? Going to the gym is clearly going to be a better option than watching TV on the couch if your goal is to be healthier. Spending time with your spouse is clearly a better option than working late at your day job if your goal is a loving relationship.

And that clarity is what allows you to decide what to do when faced with multiple options.

Know Your Why

How do you decide what goals matter to you? You need to know your overall purpose. Your Why needs a good answer.

You want a healthy body? You better be able to answer why. When it is 5:00AM and raining out and the blankets are warm, everything will be screaming that your morning exercise routine is too painful and uncomfortable and annoying. Merely wanting a healthy body won’t be enough. Knowing you want a healthy body because you want to be able to play with your active children, on the other hand, drowns out the noise.

Knowing your Why gives your goals meaning beyond themselves. When the going gets tough, people start expressing doubt. Do I really want to run my own business? Do I really want to get married? Do I really want to learn guitar?

But your Why is how you determine the difference between a whim and a conviction. Your business isn’t about you. It’s about the people it will help. So you get up and work. You are getting married because you want to share your life with someone special. You are learning how to play guitar because you want to be able to play on-stage at your local bar’s open mic.

Your Why doesn’t have to be incredibly world-changing. It just has to be identified and clear to you.

The Key Is to Know Yourself

You need to know quite a few things about yourself. You need to know what you are capable of. You need to know what matters. You need to know why you care.

But it’s not easy to figure those things out if you don’t put in the work. As one of my favorite Nietzsche quotes puts it:

The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

The cost to know yourself is higher than most people are willing to spend. It’s easier to go with the flow of your family’s expectations, the interests of your friends, and the pressures of society.

But once you know your why, you can choose your own goals, which may or may not match the goals of others.

And once you have your own goals, you can make decisions according to those goals.

And once the decision is made, you have said no to any other options.

It is the hard work of knowing who you are and what is truly important to you that makes it easy to DWYSYWD. The reason is because you’ve already done the work of making decisions for the long term, so the short term decisions almost make themselves. And you’re more likely to keep the commitments you make because they are in alignment with your values, purpose, and goals.

Simple, right?

(Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vauvau/3466024918 | CC BY 2.0)

Explore Game Mechanics Interactively At This New Site

Flocking on GameMechanicExplorer.com

If you’re new to game development, or even if you are a veteran making a game of a type you’ve never made before, you might find yourself doing research on how to best implement the mechanics. Whether it is figuring out how best to implement ballistics or how to move a rocket ship, it’s not just the math but the approach you might be looking for.

For instance, last year I made a Frog and Flies clone called Hungry Frogs for One Game a Month. I remember spending quite a bit of time on the jumping mechanic as this was the closest I’ve ever come to implementing a platformer. In the end I wasn’t completely happy with what I had. My main complaint was that it wasn’t easy for me to identify the maximum height of the frog’s jump without tweaking variables and seeing what happens. But considering the few hours I spent on it, I delivered something that worked well enough.

Still, if GameMechanicExplorer.com had been around then, it would have saved me some time.

The site offers you a list of common game mechanics, each of which has at least a handful of examples with an in-browser demo and a JavaScript code example written using the Phaser framework.

Each example focuses on one concept and includes the source code for the implementation. They aren’t meant to be extremely polished or to represent a complete game. They aren’t highly optimized. They may not even be the best way to implement the mechanic being demonstrated! (They’re certainly not the only way.) They are written for clarity so that it is easier to understand the underlying concepts and apply them to your own work in your own engine. I expect that some of these examples will evolve as I gain experience. But hopefully you’ll find them useful and you can use them as a jumping off point for your own games.

At the time I am writing, there are examples for bullets, spaceship movement, following, homing missiles, raycasting, lighting, effects, easing movement, and even walking and jumping.

Line-Of-Sight on GameMechanicExplorer.com

The walking and jumping examples start out by showing you the naive approach, which has the on-screen character either stationary or moving at full speed. It’s functional, but it doesn’t feel right. The next example introduces the concept of acceleration to make the movement smoother, but it identifies a problem that is introduced. The next example introduces the concept of drag.

The next few examples take you through basic jumping mechanics, including double jumps and variable jump heights, the latter of which I needed for my hungry frog game.

I enjoyed spending time exploring different mechanics, such as seeing how various easing functions compare to each other, or how to use raycasting to do line-of-sight checks. I remember someone once posted a comparison of jumping mechanics of Mario, Meat Boy, and Mega Man among others, but I can’t find it today. GameMechanicExplorer.com is filling that void nicely.

I’m looking forward to seeing the implementation of some of the upcoming mechanics, including camera controls and the advanced platformer ones.

John Watson, you have provided aspiring game developers a great service.

95% Off for Game Development Course Bundle

A colleague told me about a deal he found online: 95% off for a bundle of game development courses.

After learning how to replicate Flappy Bird and Candy Crush, this bundle will give you an education in developing for both Android and iOS, a beginner’s guide to HTML5 game development, and a quick-start guide to creating a game with Stencyl.

Some people are turned off by the focus on essentially cloning two very popular games, but if you think about it, artists learn to create great paintings only after they all learn how to paint bowls of fruit.

I don’t plan on getting the courses myself, but then I’m not starting from scratch. I’ve made games, and I have in fact worked with Stencyl, and many of the topics I see covered are things I can look up on my own, such as how to sell apps.

Still, the idea of focused courses on topics related to making games that look very much like “real” games and even learning how to sell them is appealing.

But what do you think? Is it a good deal for beginners?

The Best Conference I’ve Ever Been To #ELSummit14

Last year, I went to the Extreme Leadership Intensive here in Des Moines, IA. I met Steve Farber, who is not only the author of The Radical Leap and founder of the Extreme Leadership Institute, but he’s also a real down-to-earth guy.

Extreme Leadership can be summed up as “do what you love in the service of people who love what you do.” It’s about the challenge of changing the world, whether that’s the entire world or the world of your customers, company, or co-workers.

It’s about love, which many other leadership books would call vision or passion. You can’t do your best work if your heart isn’t in it. And you won’t be able to generate the enthusiasm from other people who might otherwise be willing to support your endeavor.

And it’s about the fear. If you’re not doing something that scares you, then you’re not living up to your full potential, which means you’re holding back in this one life you have to live. If you’re doing what you love, then it is intensely personal, and it should scare you and everyone else that you’re trying to make a difference. Otherwise, you’re not leading.

Love and fear? It’s the exhilaration you feel in interplay between these opposites that shows you that you’re doing what you should in life. If you let fear get in the way, however, you’ll have a different experience.

Larry Smith talks about it in this TED talk on why you will fail to have a great career:

So, a couple of weekends ago, I went to the Extreme Leadership Summit, which Farber has repeatedly said would be a unique experience. It wouldn’t be a passive conference, with sales pitches and feel-good platitudes that leave you no better off than when you arrived. It would prove to be interactive and challenging, practical and immediate, and full of amazing and approachable people who are walking the talk in their own lives.

Extreme Leadership Summit 2014

And as a result, I think it was the best conference I’ve ever been to. And I’ve been to GDC, which is a spectacle onto itself. I’m still processing everything I learned and experienced a week later.

Day 1: Deepening Your Leadership Foundation

The first speaker was Simon Billsberry, and his presentation was all about answering the question of whether or not being an entrepreneur is the same as being an extreme leader. He said, “Entrepreneurs know who they are” and talked about how he plans to help accelerate the pace of change in we had a discussion afterwards about the nature of entrepreneurship. It was too bad he was sick for the rest of the summit because I was looking forward to hearing more.

Billsberry said the fundamental leadership question is “What can I do, right now, regardless of what others around here are or are not doing, to change my piece of this world/company/organization for the better?”

Chad Coe is a wealth management expert who wrote The Power of Peopletizing: Networking Your Way to an Abundant Life, which was provided for free in the goodie bag at the summit. He spoke quite a bit about how connecting with others and maintaining relationships with them can result in so much capacity to help.

Coe has a big philanthropic streak in him. He organized his work time to ensure he can not only spend time with his family but can also participate in a number of charities, many of which he founded with the idea of “If you want something, create it.”

He gave many inspiring examples of the amount of help he is able to provide due to the way he motivates his relationships. For the three days of the summit, our tables at lunch were our mastermind groups, something else he strongly advocates for, and everyone had a fascinating story to tell about their experience and their struggles, and everyone had actionable advice to give.

Darren Hardy, publisher of SUCCESS magazine and author of The Compound Effect, talked about the power of repeated, consistent actions on achieving your goals. He said that the secret to success is in three words: “hard frickin’ work.” He gave the example of doubling the grains of rice each day for 60 days as evidence for how subtle yet powerful the compound effect is. After 10 days, you’d only have 512 grains, and at 20 you’d have 524,288, but at 30? You’d have 536,870,912.

He then talked about how many of our beneficial activities, such as exercising or investing, don’t pay off immediately. We don’t have immediate consequences for eating dessert for dinner or being lazy on the couch on evening, but over 20 years, daily dessert and laziness results in health issues. Similarly, having a fight with your spouse and going to bed angry once doesn’t immediately result in divorce, but resentment and disappointment builds up over time before it comes to a head.

He gave an example with three otherwise similar people who get the same job. One does what he always did. One eats just 250 calories less a day, walks 250 extra steps a day, reads for 15 minutes and listens to inspiring audio for 30 minutes at the start of his day, etc. The last one eats 250 extra calories a day, walks 250 fewer steps a day, and otherwise does the opposite of the second guy. After only six months, you wouldn’t see a difference between them, which is what frustrates people and makes magic pills and diets and secrets to success so appealing to them. The results aren’t immediate. Drinking water instead of eating chocolate cake basically feels like you’re just missing out on delicious cake.

But after five years? The three have such different experiences from each other. One has read hundreds of books and listened to hundreds of positive and inspiring audio programs and has lost tens of pounds of weight as a result of eating less and exercising more. The other gained weight and has the health issues that come with a sedentary lifestyle, and he has learned a lot less, resulting in less interesting prospects for his life. The compound effects of your small choices sneak up on you to create big results. Another way to put it is that you either pay for your results through discipline or through regret. Missing out on that chocolate cake now sounds like a more freeing and enjoyable life is possible.

Day 2: Amplifying Your Life Experience

The next morning, Pamela Slim, author of Escape from Cubicle Nation, said that your purpose in life is to create a body of work that you are proud of. She had incredible enthusiasm for the stories we each had, since creating a body of work starts with our roots and the identification of our skills and experience. Who we are drives what we’re passionate about, and being true to it is the only way we can really tell our story. And she signed my copy of her recent book, Body of Work. B-)

Pete Luongo, retired CEO of The Berry Company, signed my copy of his book, 10 Truths About Leadership…It’s Not Just About Winning. He talked about how so much of what they realized and developed years ago to turn around the company, and what businesses literature has covered decades prior, has come into vogue recently, such as focusing on the customer. He said to me the day before, “Franco, it’s all common sense.”

Frank DeAngelis didn’t leave a dry eye in the room as he shared his experience as Principal of Columbine High School. It’s now 15 years after the tragedy, and he talked about his efforts since to reach out to all students and to ensure that he can see everyone who was in elementary school on the day of the shooting walk across the stage as a graduate of the high school, which was accomplished a few years ago. He got a standing ovation, and I’m sure his school will miss his passion and enthusiasm for the children and their education when he retires.

Janet Bray Attwood, author of The Passion Test and member of my mastermind group during the summit, has an infectious excitement about her. My favorite quote from her presentation: “When you are faced with a choice, decision, or opportunity, choose in favor of your passions.” Between that thought and the idea of talking about the higher purpose of your work, what you really do, I thought it was the most subtle and challenging mode of operation mentioned. As part of her presentation, she had us administer the Passion Test to a fellow participant, and I found it surprisingly clarifying.

To wrap up the day, Jay Jay French, manager and guitarist of Twisted Sister, shared his life and business lessons as the group persevered for a decade before signing a record deal, which once again demonstrated that everyone has an interesting story to tell. He also participated in my mastermind group for one day, talking about where he wants to grow next since the band is still playing concerts today, decades later.

That night, there was what Farber jokingly referred to as the real reason for the Summit: the Extreme Jam Session and Open Mic. Attendees and speakers were invited to perform and sing. I sang one song, Long Cool Woman by The Hollies, and I got to hear some really talented musicians have a great time on stage.

Day 3: Transforming Your Results at Work

The final day started with the magic of Andrew Bennett. He was a personal assistant of Ross Perot, became a member of The Magic Circle, and is a leadership consultant and coach. Using illusions to wow us, he shared with us that transformation happens in three ways: appearance (revealing the truth), disappearance (concealing a deeper truth), and restoration (replacing something with something of greater value). These three transformations occur through six creative powers: inspiration, words, self-awareness, relationships, authenticity, and mastery. He learned during research for a blog post that the seemingly silly and popular magic word “Abracadabra” is actually Aramaic for “What I speak is what I create,” which was relevant to the power of words to restrict or unleash creativity. He gave each attendee an orange wristband with the word and translation.

Phil Town is the author of Rule #1, a book about a simple investing strategy. I have to admit that I initially got quite interested in his presentation, which explained how mutual funds are a bad deal since you are paying managers who consistently can’t seem to beat the market on returns, which is something I already knew which is why I’m more interested in index funds if I had to choose. He explained that consistently successful investors exist, such as Warren Buffett, and their success is based on simple strategies.

He also talked about the idea that where you invest your money equates to your support for those investments. For example, if you don’t smoke and don’t want your children to smoke, why would you invest in any of most mutual funds since it means you’ll necessarily have money supporting the source of most cigarettes in the market? Makes sense to me, and I know people who won’t invest in index funds because it means investing in weapon manufacturers, for instance.

That said, I found myself feeling a bit strange. Here we were at this amazing conference being told consistently that identifying your love and passion is key, and it seemed most people in the audience were getting the most excited about the idea of relatively easy and consistently high returns in the stock market. Granted, Town’s wealth opens up quite the capacity to give back and live an abundant life, and he talked about investing only in companies that match your values. Still, it felt very much like I was ultimately getting a pitch to subscribe to his service which provides the info to make investment decisions the way he described. Talking to my mastermind group, it seemed I might have been alone in that assessment as everyone else felt the offered intensive course in Atlanta to learn the ins and outs of the strategy was an amazing opportunity. I hope it works out for the people who go. I have plans scheduled for that weekend.

Dr. Tasha Eurich is an organizational psychologist and author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom Line Results, and the Power to Deliver Both. Her presentation was about what it takes to create fulfilled teams and exceptional results, that it wasn’t an either-or proposition. When striving for success here, she said you (1) know where you stand, (2) make one change at a time, and (3) be obsessed about relentless, deliberate practice.

We ended the summit with a Q & A speaker panel, and the final good-bye was said with champagne.

Extreme Leadership Summit Speaker Panel

Extreme Conclusions

There were a few themes that kept coming up throughout the summit. One was the idea of being clear on your why, both for yourself and for the people around you.

Another was the idea that your adversity is your advantage, that your past developed muscles, not wounds.

Another was the idea of being conscious and deliberate with your life. Whether it is investing or how you choose to spend time with your family, being fully aware of what you are doing and the consequences is the only moral thing to do.

Most of the speakers also attended the summit. They weren’t just there to talk and leave. I had conversations with quite a few of them, as they were all quite approachable and ready to connect. A few made supportive comments when they learned I wanted to make educational entertainment to encourage creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking.

In fact, quite a few attendees, many who are educators, came up to me and expressed their support, offering advice or asking for more information. The idea of talking about what you really do, that everyone has an interesting story to share, and that you should choose in favor of your passion seemed to pay off immediately.

Steve Farber and the lovely Dianne Kenny were at both the intensive and this summit, and it was good to see them again. Kenny is very clearly a fun and positive person to be around, and she celebrated her birthday with us on the first day. I’m not sure how many people chose water over the delicious cake that was provided.

One thing that struck me was how warm the summit was. When Farber thanked everyone who was involved in making the summit a success, I realized it was very much a family-run business. I met his wife who I had only spoken with on the phone, and she recognized my name and gave me a hug. It seemed many of the people behind the scenes were related in some way. Everyone had an enthusiasm that demonstrated how much they believed in what the organization stands for.

And that’s probably the biggest thing I took away. I thought a lot about what impact I’m having in the world. Based on how I spend my time and where I expend my effort, am I similarly demonstrating how much I believe in what I stand for? Or am I allowing fear and momentum to hold me back, doing a disservice to myself and to the countless people who might be positively impacted by my efforts if I only focused and dedicated more time to it?

And that kind of deep questioning is why I think the Extreme Leadership Summit was the best conference I have ever attended.